The Sketchbook Habit

  • Serge Hollerbach: For this New York artist, filling sketchbooks with drawings and paintings isn’t about collecting materials for a particular painting, per se. Rather, he’s training his visual memory. “By sketching a person from life, you remember the pose,” he says. “You don’t have to find this particular drawing before you put it in a painting. I just create something out of my memory, basing it on past observations and remembered sketches. I use the experience.” To make sure he captures the gesture he wants, Hollerbach starts with the part of the subject that caught his attention. “Look and see what you like about the pose if you do a whole figure,” he says. “Start with the torso, legs and arms. If there’s an arm resting on the back of the chair, start with the shoulder and the arm and the body because that’s the important gesture. If the person gets up, you still got what you wanted.
  • Betsy Pearson: If you’re beginning your own journal, Pearson recommends getting good equipment. She uses a hardbound sketchbook with 300- or 400-lb. paper, which is heavy enough to not wrinkle or buckle when she uses watercolors. Hers are 8×8 inches, but she says any size will do, as long as it travels easily and is large enough to capture what you want. Her other tools are a pencil, a waterproof pen and a small pan set of watercolors. Once you start sketching, Pearson says not to worry too much about how good your drawings are. “I think people get awfully uptight about being good as an artist,” she says. “My philosophy is: If it pleases you and you have fun doing it, do it.”
  • Don Getz: “Drawing is to painting as walking is to running,” says Don Getz. “When you learn how to draw well, it makes it so much easier to paint. All your problems—values, design, shapes, pattern and detail—are solved except for color temperature.” The more you draw, the easier it becomes, says Getz. “I never think I’m good enough, so I try to draw every day.” When the Peninsula, Ohio, artist travels, he carries a packet of photos in his briefcase to doodle from. And sometimes at night when he’s watching television, he’ll pull out his sketchbook and draw what’s on the screen, or work from more photos. Without the many years of drawing and sketching, Getz estimates he’d be “about 20 years behind myself. You don’t learn it in a couple of days. It’s all that experience that goes into it.”
  • Jack Hines and Jessica Zemsky: To these husband-and-wife painters, sketchbooks bring out the honesty in artists. If you’re a true artist, say the Montana couple, you’ll have the sketchbooks filled with pages of drawings and painting studies to prove it. Specifically, Zemsky believes that the quickness with which a sketch is done doesn’t leave room for artificiality. “Because you’re not trying to develop something fully and make it perfect,” she says, “it gives you what you really feel and think about a subject. With a sketchbook, there’s no doctoring up.”

    “I think regularly sketching is analogous to what you hear about authors having a fine grasp of language and the way people talk,” says Hines. “If you hang out with your sketchbook and do a lot of character studies, you’re much more apt to create believable characters in your paintings.”

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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